The Schein Nine  

 

Dallas Cowboys headline this offseason's most fascinating teams

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You know a Super Bowl was epic when it's still the biggest story in sports four days after the game. And that's what has happened in the aftermath of the New England Patriots' narrow win over the Seattle Seahawks. We witnessed a legendary showdown that, as I wrote on Monday, will be talked about and debated forever.

But hey, the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis is just a couple of weeks away. And there's no shortage of intrigue this offseason.

The NFL is hotter than ever. The storylines are plentiful. Will the Cowboys get better? How about the Lions? What will happen at the top of the 2015 NFL Draft? Which teams will put themselves in position for a breakthrough campaign? Can anyone knock off the Patriots? Could Super Bowl 50 feature an all-bird ensemble (Cardinals vs. Ravens)?

Here are the nine most fascinating teams to watch this offseason:

1) Dallas Cowboys

Dallas enjoyed a fantastic -- and wholly surprising -- regular season in 2014. Now there's pressure to do it again and go even deeper in the playoffs.

After facing questions about job security in prior offseasons, coach Jason Garrett received a new five-year, $30 million deal to stay with the Cowboys. But will he have the same shiny toys when his team takes the field again?

Receiver Dez Bryant and running back DeMarco Murray are both due to hit free agency next month. Yes, Bryant can be tough to handle sometimes, but you cannot replace his talent -- owner Jerry Jones must retain his services. Murray is a stud fresh off the best season of his career. The NFL's leading rusher (1,845 yards) ran wild behind the best offensive line in football. This took pressure off Tony Romo, allowing the quarterback to enjoy his finest NFL season. But will the price be right for No. 29? What if it's not? What other options would the Cowboys have at running back?

Backup Joseph Randle certainly didn't help his cause by getting arrested for the second time in the last five months. (UPDATE: Police dropped a drug charge against Randle on Friday.) If the Minnesota Vikings cut ties with Adrian Peterson, and the running back is reinstated from his suspension, could Dallas be in the mix? It's possible. Remember the phone call between Peterson and Jerrah?

And another big question looms on the other side of the ball: Can Dallas count on linebacker Sean Lee to return to form after missing the entire 2014 campaign with a torn ACL? When healthy, Lee's a stud, but this wasn't the first time he missed significant action due to injury.

I think Stephen Jones proved last year that he knows how to build an actual team while keeping his dad at bay. (See: Last year's draft, when Stephen forced Jerry to take Zack Martin over Johnny Manziel. Martin was an All-Pro as a rookie. Manziel ... was not.) But now there will be a bull's-eye on the Cowboys' back.

2) Denver Broncos

Will Peyton Manning return in 2015? Or will he decide to hang 'em up? There's no bigger question in the NFL today. If he does come back, will the Broncos QB return to superstar form? Or will he struggle, like the last time we saw him, in a highly disappointing playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts? Will his performance be akin to Willie Mays stumbling around the Mets' outfield?

Demaryius Thomas is a free agent-to-be. The star wide receiver told me last week on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein On Sports," that he felt the Broncos "looked past" Indianapolis in the playoff defeat. That's unacceptable. And that was the final nail in the coffin for former coach John Fox. You would think the Broncos would be hell-bent on keeping Thomas in the building, franchising him if they can't agree to a long-term deal.

Meanwhile, dynamic tight end Julius Thomas and slot receiver Wes Welker are also set to become free agents.

John Elway built his team to win the Super Bowl with Manning. Now, questions -- and pressure -- abound.

3) Baltimore Ravens

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When it comes to building a team, Ozzie Newsome, Eric DeCosta and the Ravens could teach a master class. Baltimore had the Patriots beat in the Divisional Round -- holding two different 14-point leads -- but the Ravens couldn't finish the job. Still, this team is ready to rock in 2015 ... if Newsome and DeCosta can improve the defensive backfield. (Tom Brady carved up the unit in the aforementioned game, racking up 367 yards passing and three touchdowns.)

Baltimore always runs the draft. A few key moves this offseason, and we could be talking about the Ravens getting back to the Super Bowl.

4) Detroit Lions

Was 2014 a fluke, or was it the beginning of Detroit making annual trips to the playoffs?

There might not be a bigger free agent, literally and figuratively, than Ndamukong Suh. (Yes, he tops NFL.com's list of the top 25 free agents.) This cat is a stud. He does remarkable things on defense, though his antics can drive you nuts. But can the Lions, who've already given big-money deals to Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, afford the disruptive defensive tackle? They might not be able to. If Suh leaves Detroit, though, the Lions can't win. It's that simple. He's clearly the biggest reason this defense ranked No. 2 in 2014.

Plus, I think NFC North rivals Chicago and Minnesota are going to get better -- and the Packers are the Packers.

5) Oakland Raiders

General manager Reggie McKenzie still holds a job. This counts as legit news. While McKenzie did land some major building blocks in last year's draft, his free agency record is weak.

Oakland has oodles of cap room and a plethora of needs, starting at wide receiver. The Raiders need to land a big fish for promising young quarterback Derek Carr -- someone like Bryant, Thomas or Randall Cobb. Another consideration: How fantastic would Alabama product Amari Cooper look in Silver and Black? That would be a dream draft scenario.

On defense, the Raiders have a star in the making at linebacker: Khalil Mack. Oakland vet Justin Tuck told me on SiriusXM Radio that he thinks Mack can turn into "Derrick Thomas or Lawrence Taylor." Wow. New coach Jack Del Rio could bring Terrance Knighton with him from Denver via free agency.

With the right offseason, Oakland doesn't have to be that bad this year. Seriously.

6) Houston Texans

I am so fascinated by Houston this offseason. I think the world of coach Bill O'Brien and what he accomplished in Year 1 of his tenure, leading the Texans to a seven-win improvement without a quarterback.

Now, they have to find one. It's only everything.

I can't imagine that the 2015 quarterback is on the current roster. So who will it be? Brian Hoyer, via free agency? Mike Glennon, via trade? A draft pick? The Texans are close to being a very dangerous team, but they need the right guy at the game's most important position.

I think Houston takes another step forward in 2015 after a strong and calculated offseason.

7) New Orleans Saints

Were the struggles of 2014 an aberration, or are the Saints on the slippery slope of inevitable decline?

Drew Brees regressed last season -- and he's not getting any younger. Mark Ingram resurrected his career, but he's set to become a free agent. And there is major, major work to do with a defense that just finished 31st.

Having said that, the NFC South was historically weak in 2014. So maybe the Saints, who got nothing from last year's free agency crown jewel (safety Jairus Byrd missed 12 games due to injury), aren't that far away from hosting a playoff game. Byrd's progress in the offseason is pretty gigantic -- something to monitor closely.

8) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I've argued for two years that the Bucs have a quarterback, and that his name is Mike Glennon. Lovie Smith stunningly refused to give him a real shot at the job.

Now the Bucs have the top pick in the draft. Jameis Winston has undeniable talent, but major maturity issues. Would you trust him to be the CEO of your franchise? I wouldn't. Is Marcus Mariota ready to rock in an NFL offense?

After a very active offseason one year ago, Tampa had playoff aspirations. The Bucs hired Smith to take them to the postseason. They were the worst team in the NFL. Lovie Smith was the biggest underachiever among NFL coaches last year, even bigger than Marc Trestman was with Smith's old Bears team.

My confidence level in the Bucs is currently pretty low. They truly have something to prove in the coming months. It'll be very interesting to see how they proceed.

9) Arizona Cardinals

Arizona boasts the best head coach-general manager combination in the NFL, with Bruce Arians and Steve Keim. The Cardinals have remarkably won 21 games in the last two years despite dealing with major attrition and adversity while playing in the NFC West, the most difficult division in football.

Keim, Terry McDonough and the scouting staff do a fantastic job, routinely unearthing gems that Arians then coaches up. Keim is a draft-day wizard, and the young talent is plentiful in the desert.

Arians told me last week on SiriusXM Radio that Carson Palmer is ahead of schedule on his rehab and that the quarterback wants to be on the field for offseason activities. Arians joked that he told Palmer to "slow down," but the QB is progressing very well.

I anticipate the Cardinals figuring out Larry Fitzgerald's contract situation, finding a solution that's to everyone's liking.

Arians says he wants to use the 49ers' locker room for Super Bowl 50. With a few more brilliant additions and tweaks by the always-active Keim, Arizona definitely could be on track for that kind of success in 2015. Cards fans are in great hands and have a lot to be excited about.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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